Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers One hundred years ago

Anaesthesia and swearing

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 25 January 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:200

Our armies, as we learn from My Uncle Toby, swore terribly in Flanders; and if the testimony of Mr. Kipling is to be accepted they do the same at the present day in India and elsewhere. In civil life the strong language of our ancestors has to a large extent been replaced by meaningless slang. It would have been impossible to damn every one and everything more comprehensively or more consistently than Lord Melbourne, the political mentor of our late gracious sovereign, Queen Victoria. Fifty or sixty years ago surgeons, like other folk, swore freely; and if they are now less full of strange oaths, that is due partly to what Matthew Arnold called the stream of tendency and partly to a wider diffusion of training in the liberal arts which has softened the ferocity of our manners. In the Hunterian Oration delivered the other day Sir Henry Howse expressed the opinion that the disuse of profane language among surgeons might be regarded as one of the blessings of chloroform. Anaesthesia, according to the President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England removed “the necessity for the surgeon to express himself in such forcible and inelegant terms as was necessary previously for the control of his patient.” We venture to think that this theory is unfair to the surgeons of pre-anaesthetic times. Men are apt to use strong language when they are strongly moved, and in the old days many surgeons may have sworn during operations, as boys whistle in going through a graveyard at night, to give themselves courage. We know what men like Cheselden, Charles Bell, and Astley Cooper suffered when they had to undertake a serious operation, and how they had to nerve themselves for the task. In the old days surgeons as a class unquestionably were rougher in manner and language than they are nowadays, but that is because only men of blood and iron could have practised the art of chirurgery under the conditions then existing. We decline to believe, however, that our predecessors were brutal enough to swear at the patients who were shrieking under the knife, and we cannot admit that the introduction of anaesthesia removed “the necessity for strong speech and roughness of manner in the veterans who have gone before us.” (BMJ 1903;i:452)